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Marylanders Celebrate The Weird And Wonderful With Cicada Tattoos

The Brood X cicadas that are flooding central Maryland have delighted and disgusted many state residents. In Baltimore, some are so delighted that they’ve gone to Bill Stevenson for cicada tattoos to mark the occasion.

Stevenson has given nearly 160 cicada tattoos this season at Waverly Tattoo Co., his tattoo shop in North Baltimore’s Remington neighborhood.

“Some people really don't like them and some people love them,” he said. “I think if you don't like them, you should get a cicada tattooed on you at this point in time because they repel them. And if you do like them, you should come get a cicada tattooed on your head this time, because it attracts them.”

For an insect tattoo, it’s delicate: Stevenson’s stencil design is small with soft lines. The cicada’s wings are spread open in implied flight. And of course, it has the signature vermillion eyes, as well as a bright red heart on its abdomen.

Jill Thoma celebrated her birthday with a cicada tattoo on her bicep. She first saw Stevenson’s design online.

“I found someone on Instagram and I was like, oh, actually people are putting them on their bodies. And I was like, this is fantastic,” she said. She got the cicada tattoo on her bicep - it’s nestled next to older tattoos of trees, like a real cicada would enjoy.

Thomas said the cicadas have brightened the spring for her family, her kids especially.

“Like you read the articles are like, ‘Oh, after a year of being inside now, we have indicated that we're going to be stuffed inside’ and we're definitely the opposite,” she said. “Let's enjoy them as much as possible.”

Stevenson agreed.

“We've looked down into the abyss of 2020 and now it’s a little bit easier to make a decision to get a tattoo, or even make a decision to get this tattoo,” he said.

“We’re coming out of what was a pretty tough year for everyone...You know, why not?” Thomas said.

This isn’t the first cycle of Brood X cicada tattoos that Stevenson has done. He inked his first batch back in 2004, the last time they were in town.

“A fair number of people got them,” he said. “This time around, I've tattooed at least three of my friends who got one from me in 2004.”

But this year, Stevenson has done way more. “Everything that's happened in the last year or so, as well as everything we've done to the planet, these guys are still around and they're still going, they're going to come back in 17 more years. And I really think that's amazing, because they're just little weird little dinosaurs,” he said.

After half an hour in Stevenson’s chair, Thomas’s cicada tattoo is finished.

“I love it. Love it!” she exclaimed.

Megan Clifford is another one of Stevenson’s Brood X customers.

“I decided that 2021 was the year of just doing fun stuff. And since the cicadas are out, let's find a cicada tattoo to commemorate 2021 after 2020 was such a mess,” she said.

She grew up in Baltimore and says she has fond memories of how loud Brood X was back in 2004.

“I have very distinct memories of driving up 83 toward the county and hearing them over the radio because they were so loud in the trees. And I just think that that's so cool. And now I live way out in the burbs and it's just a dull roar all day long,” Clifford said.

A lot has changed in 17 years. This time around, Clifford has a six-year-old and a nine-year-old she’s been enjoying cicada season with.

“They're collecting them off the trees,” They're seeing how many shells they can find. They're really excited about it,” she said. “So I think that's pretty rad.”

Those experiences with her kids bring a special meaning to her cicada tattoo, she said.

“The meaning can still be fun or silly or lighthearted,” Clifford said. “It doesn't have to have this heavy story behind it or anything like that.”

That’s how most of Stevenson’s cicada tattoo customers have felt, he said. Some have gotten extra cheeky with it, like those who got their favorite DMX lyric tattooed next to the Brood X cicada: “X gon’ give it to ya!”

He agreed that tattoos are about celebrating the weird and wonderful parts of life, not so much memorializing it. Not every tattoo has to be an image of a deceased loved one, he said.

“And then what do you have? You just have a bunch of pictures of people on you and that's what that's what scrapbooks are for,” he quipped.

At the end of Clifford’s session, she grinned at the new cicada on her calf. Her kids are excited to see it.

“They know that I'm coming here today,” she said “They're like, ‘Can we go too?’ I said, ‘Absolutely not. You have school today!’”

Stevenson sends her off with gifts for her kids — temporary cicada tattoos. He’s been giving them to teacher friends for their students. They’ll also work for adults who like cicadas, but won’t permanently put one on their bodies.

“This is the starter kit for children — and scaredy pants, scaredy cats, fraidy pants!” he laughed.

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.